The Colorado National Monument
It was July 4, 1912. He had been writing annoying, pestering letters to Government officials and the newspapers from 1907 through 1909. He’d harassed the local Chamber of Commerce and put signs all over town. Some Fruita residents objected to the idea saying “it would flood the valley with strangers who will pollute our county and destroy our grazing area.” But John Otto’s dream of having the Grand Junction land recognized by Congress and the President had been fulfilled. In 1909, the land was withdrawn from public domain to be studied. In 1911, President Taft authorized the Colorado National Monument. Otto was hired as custodian for $1 per month.
Besides engineering and building the Serpent’s Trail, a road with 54 switchbacks so, “people could drive where only birds had flown before.” He had cut and installed iron rungs in the 550 foot monolith, Independence Monument to facilitate a quick climb to the top. With the American flag draped over his shoulder, patriotic and proud, 34-year old, John Otto was ready to climb to the top and unfurl the flag for all to see. After all, it was our nation’s birthday and it was time to celebrate!
John Otto introduced elk and bison into the Monument. The NPS made his Serpent’s Trail into a foot trail 40 years later. Rimrock Drive, converted into a 1931 CCC federal relief project, followed his original road which experts said, “was engineered perfectly.”
In the fall of 1925, John Otto flew a custom-made, white, canvas banner that measured sixteen feet by 20 feet. It had a navy blue border and streamers with a large gold star in the center. He said “the gold star was in honor of dead soldiers”. He ordered it manufactured by the Grand Junction Tent & Awning Company and paid for the banner himself. He rolled it up and with a 1,000 foot of cable, and using pack horses, took it to the National Monument.
It took him almost 5 days to get it hoisted by repeatedly climbing the 200 ft canyon walls on each side, using a block and tackle to lift the heavy cable and the canvas banner. John Otto called the area “Soldier’s Canyon” and flew the banner because he wanted to honor America’s fallen heroes. Over the Thanksgiving holidays in 1925, it is written that the flag could be seen from downtown Grand Junction by the power of the wind billowing it out between the canyon walls. (This incident was reported by Alan J. Kania in his book, John Otto of Colorado National Monument.)
In February 1927, he wrote “The National Park Service doesn’t want me as custodian any more since I decided to go into politics. Seems I can’t do both at the same time. (P. S. Have no more tact than a bull going through a fence. I admit all that.) The buffalo I turned loose last year are growing in numbers…We paid for the buffalo by getting everybody in town to donate their buffalo nickels.” (Quote from “Rim of Time” by Stephen Trimble. CO National Monument Assn. Fruita, CO. 1981.)
In May 1933, John Otto joined 300 other men of the Civilian Conservation Corps building Rim Rock Drive. In June he penned, “We’re living in camps on the mesa and make $30 a month. All but $5 gets sent to my family to help them during this terrible depression. Every inch of the 23 miles of this road is hand-made, with some help from black powder and dynamite. We’re going to be mighty proud when we’re done. It’ll be a great thing to come back here with our grandkids and tell stories.” (Quote from “Rim of Time”.)
In 1934, John Otto left for the Klamath River in Yreka, California, where he panned for gold. His final residence was a one-room, abandoned Walker Post Office building that he’d painted red, white and blue. He never returned to Colorado. He died June 19, 1952 and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Evergreen Cemetery in Yreka. The people of Yreka had no idea of the important part that John Otto played in Colorado history.
In 2002, Michael O’Boyle, a local resident, a long-time admirer of John Otto, and owner of “Eagletree Tours”, conceived the idea of scheduling a trip to the California cemetery to honor Otto 50 years after his death. Dave Fishell and Mike got the support of the NPS, the CO National Monument Assn and several other local businesses to raise money for a marker for Otto’s grave. The trip was a “GO”.
Lyle Nichols, local prominent artist, located a 3′ x 3′ x 9′, 700 pound Lyons sandstone, shaped like the Independence Rock, for the top. The 3,400 pound, Precambrian stone, for the base was trucked from Escalante Canyon to Nichols’ art residence, where he shaped it into 5′ x 2.5′ x 2′ tall size. It was important to everyone that it be made from Colorado rocks that were part of the canyons Otto loved the most.
“We wanted to give tribute to this American hero and what he represents and to increase the awareness of the Colorado National Monument. We wanted to thank John for giving us the Colorado National Monument.” And thank him they did – just 50 years after his death!